Students Go Live Online with McDonald Observatory to Search for Planets

14 May 2004

Event: Students at Austin’s Lanier High School will be linked live over the internet to astronomers at McDonald Observatory in West Texas, helping in the search for planets around stars other than the Sun.

When: 7:00 p.m., May 14 (weather permitting; bad weather in West Texas will move the event to May 15). Astronomical observing at McDonald will begin at 10:00 p.m.

Where: Sidney Lanier High School, Health Sciences Computer Lab, 1201 Payton Gin Road, Austin, Texas.

Background: A small group (3-9) local high school students are going stay up all night tonight – helping University of Texas astronomers look for planets. All through the night, members of the astronomy club at Sydney Lanier High School in Austin will be logged into a specially created web site that allows them to see what the astronomers are seeing with the Otto Struve Telescope at McDonald Observatory, nearly 500 miles away under the dark skies of West Texas. And they will be able to phone in their questions to astronomers at the telescope in real time.

Dr. Don Winget, astronomy professor and Chair of The University of Texas Astronomy Department, will be on hand at Lanier after 9:00 p.m. to discuss his planet-hunting research and the instrument that makes it possible, called Argos. Fergal Mullally, Don’s graduate student, will be observing at the telescope at McDonald Observatory. And astronomer Mike Montgomery will be in the telescope dome with Mullally, taking telephone calls with questions from the students back in Austin.

Winget and Mullally visited Lanier in January to speak to the students of the school’s new astronomy club about their search for examples of a particular kind of star (called a pulsating white dwarf) and ultimately for planets that may be orbiting them. The astronomers also talked to students about how they can become involved both short-term and long-term in this research.

Chris Cotter (M.S. in Astronomy), longtime math and science teacher and Lanier’s Math Department Supervisor, started the astronomy club at Lanier this school year with co-sponsors and fellow math teachers, Frank Maldonado and Brian Beals. The three teachers all have a keen interest in astronomy and enjoy helping students see how the math (and science) they are learning in school can apply to real and cutting-edge research. One goal of this club is to encourage students to consider astronomy and related fields as a career. Another is to simply to share information about the fascinating field of astronomy.

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